Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Louisville looked like they had the game wrapped up. A lot of times. They did not.
I don't even know where to start with this. I was going to talk about the double-overtime game between Louisville and Notre Dame a few years ago, when Jack Cooley and Mike Broghammer came off the bench just to be sacrificed at the altar of Samardo Samuels. Or maybe the six-overtime game between Syracuse and UConn in the Big East tourney, or the Chris Thomas marathon man four-overtime Notre Dame/Georgetown game, or this random Oklahoma State/Texas triple-overtime thriller in 2007 when Kevin Durant was bested by a man named Mario Boggan.
These games are all special, and we just watched history get made. People will always talk about tonight when they talk about classic college basketball contests, and the Irish - somehow, someway, by hook, crook and terrible Louisville possessions - will always be the winner. My favorite moment of the night was right after Cam Biedscheid's game-tying three in overtime, the camera cut to Rick Pitino, who after throwing a water bottle in the air was addressing God - or just the roof of the JACC - with arms raised, asking "What exactly do I have to do to win in this place?". Louisville has been in the Big East since the 05-06 season. In that time, they have won Big East titles and they have gone to the Final Four but they have not won in South Bend.
For the longest time, it looked like that streak was coming to an end. Eight-point leads with 51 seconds left don't often get overcome. They especially don't get overcome when you're struggling to shoot the entire night - hell, the entire season - and your opponent has two great free-throw shooters handling the ball. But Jerian Grant, the basketball mad scientist and hoops roulette wheel, was possessed by the spirit of early 90's Reggie Miller and did the almost impossible: 12 points in 47 seconds, on threes and and-ones and general badassery. Tie game. Overtime.
It was Louisville and Notre Dame. It had to go to overtime.
After that, things got more difficult. Jack Cooley had already fouled out of the game on one of the worst calls I have ever seen. Grant eventually joined him on the bench, as did Tom Knight. Eric Atkins was the only ball handler left, and he had to deal with the Pitino press all night (he ended up with all of 3 turnovers in 60 minutes of court time). Pat Connaughton was playing on a bum ankle that caused him to head to the locker room for treatment in the first half (then he ended up with 56 minutes, 16 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists). Yet here they were, the unlikeliest of lineups: Grant, Connaughton, a pair of freshmen in Zach Auguste and Biedscheid and Garrick Sherman, who had been relegated to the bench recently after some face-palmingly poor play during the Big East season. They were battling against a team in the top four of KenPom's rankings and they were...surviving? They were just surviving. And that was enough for the longest time.
At no point could a Notre Dame fan feel confident during that entire exercise, which almost made it more fun. Texts were flying back between me and my friends: "Well, we are definitely losing, but at least this has been entertaining." The bench was loose, laughing between possessions. How could you not laugh? If you look up "theater of the absurd" in the dictionary, there would be a photo of this very game.
I wrote Monday after the Syracuse game that this was a team without an identity. They weren't as fun to watch as previous Irish teams, and they weren't as good. Now? This team has the identity: They're the team that showed depth, toughness, tenacity and an indomitable will in a five-overtime classic none of us will ever forget. Heck, maybe they'll fumble around and lose on Wednesday night against DePaul, but I don't think so. Mike Brey teams find these galvanizing moments - they generally involve Louisville, because all roads lead to the Cardinals and overtime - and then they run with them. In a year that's completely wide open, this is what this Irish team has:
- A veteran backcourt that can make plays for themselves or teammates.
- Connaughton, who is still trying to find his three-point stroke but showed tonight that he can contribute to a game in about every way imaginable.
- A dynamic freshman wing who knows no fear and is getting better every game. It wasn't just his three to force yet another overtime, but when the Irish offense was on the ropes for periods of the second half, it was Cam who dragged them off with pull-up jumpers and dives to the hoop. He's special.
- A front court that could run a legit four deep if Sherman is capable of consistent production.
Maybe we'll look back after an uninspiring fortnight and see this as a game where Notre Dame hung around and won due to Louisville's inability to close things out six different times, which is what happened with an increasingly puzzling series of Russ Smith possessions. But you know what? Maybe not. Maybe this is what it takes for a team that was a bit lethargic all season to realize their potential and go on a run. Maybe this is what it takes for a team to feel like they're destined for something. It might have been luck tonight, but it could be belief and skill going forward.
That was really awesome, really special and I hope you were all able to take part in it. These two teams play in the Bluegrass State to end the regular season, and I'm sure the Cardinals will have revenge on their mind and a blowout in their game plan. But I'm not sure that matters: It'll go to overtime, because that's what the basketball gods want.
Next up for the Irish? DePaul on Wednesday night right back at the scene of tonight's crime. You need two wins for a streak, so let's keep this train rolling.
One final note tonight: The Leprechaun Legion was chanting "USA" at Louisville center Gorgui Dieng, who was born in Senegal. That's as classless as it comes, and I'm disappointed in the usually great Legion. I love chanting "USA" in nearly every situation, but that's not one of them. Save your jingoism for Canadians or Russian gymnasts.